A landmark report shows why Americans keep losing happiness

The 2018 World Happiness Index reveals some surprises and explains why the world's richest country is not one of its happiest.

What makes for a happy country? Is there some objective way to quantify happiness or can it simply be that some people are just more able to say they are “happy” than others? It’s a tricky task that the World Happiness Report has tackled yet again for 2018, raking 156 countries based on their happiness levels. What’s more, they added another fascinating angle to the survey, looking at the happiness of immigrants in 117 countries.


The world’s happiest place - Finland. Yes, the land of hockey and reindeer tops the charts in both the happiness of its main population and its immigrants. The surveys, which are published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative of the United Nations, showed that the overall health and happiness of the society may depend on a cohesion between its core and migrant populations and the quality of life in that country.  

John Helliwell, a University of British Columbia economist who co-edited the report, told The Washington Post that this was the most illuminating aspect of what they found -

“The most striking finding is the extent to which happiness of immigrants matches the locally born population,” said Halliwell. “The happiest countries in the world also have the happiest immigrants in the world.”

If you’re keeping score, four countries have held the top spot in recent reports - Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, and Finland. Overall, the top ten is unchanged in the last two years. One commonality between all the achievers on this list, besides over-representing Scandinavia, is scoring high in key variables such as freedom, income, life expectancy, social support, trust, and generosity. 


Undocumented Mexican laborer Juan (C) laughs as brothers Hermenegildo Sanchez (L), Amadeo Sanchez (2nd R) and Juan Sanchez (R) take English lessons in a church shelter for migrant workers April 25, 2006 in New Orleans. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The numbers, compiled from data in the Gallup World Poll, ranked quantified happiness using a “Cantril's Ladder of Life Scale” that asks participants to imagine a ladder with ten rungs that represent the best and the worst possible life. The people reported where on such a structure they stood.

The U.S. dropped on the list for the second year in a row and is now ranked 18th. It has never cracked the top ten. The report points out that while it experienced economic growth, the United States has also developed serious social issues that are undermining the happiness that should come with being a rich country.

Obesity, substance abuse, depression, drop in life expectancy that is “nearly unprecedented for a high-income country in peacetime” are cited as some of the problems besetting America. Other big reason for its eroding happiness - the decline of “social support networks” and the feeling shared by many in the country that government and business are corrupt. Similarly, trust in public institutions has waned. Indeed, it is hard to argue that happiness could have increased in a country where, most would agree, division and angst have grown.

Why measure happiness at all? Experts think it’s a good way to gauge a nation’s progress, encouraging public policy improvements that can lead to social well-being. 

Interestingly, the most improved country in terms of its happiness index is Togo, a West African country, which jumped up 17 places. Happiness there went up 1.2 points, to a fourth rung, from being mired somewhere between the second and third in 2008-2010. The decline in infant mortality and improvements in childhood education are cited as some of the reasons for that. Journalists, who cover Togo, however, differ in the opinion that there has really been much improvement, according to NPR.

The unhappiest places in the world - Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, have all struggled with conflict and instability, analyzes the Washington Post

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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